My childhood memories come back as images — still scenes, usually, with a flavor, a particular feeling or mood. But I need a word to get to them. Once you have a word, of course, you can see what’s on the net. On a rare occasion of actually dusting in the house one day, a little doll I keep on the dresser caught my attention for a moment. It gave me a nice feeling – the “looking back” feeling. Joy, I think. “Holtzermann’s.” I put the name into the search box, just out of curiosity. I really wanted images, but the search engine kept finding tiresome texts, such as “Holtzermann’s was a German toy store at 517 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis, Minnesota…”
Well of course it was German, I thought. That didn’t even need saying, did it? I want to see it again, that place filled with the most magical, sparkling, delicate, fuzzy, chugging, clicking, jumping, fascinating objects in the world. I want to see what a child of 7 or 8 saw in the mid-1950s: proof that the adult world could look through the eyes of a child—and smile. Show me the wall of dolls and dollhouses and another of miniature trains – cars and engines with crossings and signs and bridges, attendants and passengers. Show me the nutcrackers and skis, fairy-tale figures and jumping animals, fragile glass decorations and strong wooden blocks. I want the evidence that grown-ups put grown up energy into making tiny clothes and sofas and pots and pans, little turtles and tigers, dolls’ clothes in sumptuous fabric, miniature animals that could run and sing. Show me!
Maybe Mom took me twice, maybe more. I remember going in the winter, anyway, when the lights from the store made the wide sidewalk shine, and fat, fluffy snowflakes were falling slowly, making Cedar Avenue look like a story was about to begin. I still think the German part is obvious, though. What probably does need saying is that we lived in a small town in southern Minnesota, that Minneapolis is a city—the biggest between Chicago and the West Coast, and that at the time, my mother was developing rather particular—it’s fair to say urban tastes. Her attraction to the city may have been fundamentally mercantile, but it was heartfelt — and contagious. And another thing–our family, although it was thoroughly American and had been for several generations, thought of itself as German. I suspect it was not unusual in Minnesota. For although the state makes much of its Scandinavian heritage, there are more than twice as many people of German descent as there are of all the Scandinavian groups combined. That made coming from a German family absolutely unremarkable.
The search engine did find some images eventually, almost all of an unexceptional brick storefront on Cedar Avenue in broad daylight – except for one. One photograph showed toys. It is black and white, low contrast, staged. Everything looks hasty, improvised — a bed sheet as a backdrop, the objects in a bright, flat light. There’s a dollhouse full of small, complex things, and it draws me in, as such things always do. But it didn’t touch my memory of Holzermann’s. The photo seemed to cut the wrong direction. It’s a tissue-thin slice across time instead of an echo back into it. There’s too much distance and texture in my memory to fit in a camera, too many angles to flatten over a surface. Do photographs really store memories? This one seems to blunt the edges of mine, flatten and bleach them out. I’m staying with the sound, the rhythm of a name that resonates now as it did then, a pitch and a beat that brings all the delicious chugging and ringing together, holds them above a low hum of voices, laughter, mother’s voice, and snowflakes moving in the light. Somewhere, somehow, words are still sounds, and sounds have their own ways with time.